Last week I went along to the Panel Discussion and screening of The True Cost movie as the Fashion Revolution Tour stopped off in Dundee.

I was one of only a small number of non-fashion designers in the room but despite this I found the event extremely interesting and I learned a lot that I will apply to my work within Product Design.

Hierarchy of Needs

The True Cost is a documentary about the system that our fashion industry works within, especially the manufacture of those clothes in countries like Bangladesh. The horrible conditions that the sweatshop workers were shown in were constantly juxtaposed with flashes of glamorous fashion adverts and catwalk shows for the western buyers, and this got me thinking about the role that fashion industry plays in the lives of two very different groups of people.

Maslow's Needs

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in regards to my product design fourth year honours project. I’m fascinated at how people buy products not just to serve their basic function (such as a bike to go somewhere) but to communicate something about themselves to the wider world (e.g. a racing bike, a fixed gear bike one or even owning a scuffed second hand one). These objects are playing a role on the Esteem level of the hierarchy which is very much about social perceptions. On the other hand, the sweatshops barely provide enough salary for fundamental food and shelter of their workers, often with the buildings themselves providing threats to their safety.

I’d like to explore how we can use the illustration of Maslow’s Hierarchy to help consumers to understand the horrors of the industry behind the clothes that they wear and how this compares to their own lives?

Clothes are our Chosen Skin

My Honours Project is about consumerism and how products (especially electronics) are designed and marketed in a way that manipulates our deepest desires as humans to make us buy them. Desires such as social acceptance and belonging to a community. I’ve been exploring how branding creates utopian worlds around products, and how people attempt to adopt the characteristics of these utopias through buying the products – “what is mine becomes me”. Orsola de Castro, co-founder of the Fashion Revolution and one of the panel members, explained that “clothes are our chosen skin“. They allow us to communicate who we are, perhaps in an even easier way than the products that we own because they’re what’s immediately visible of us. Orsola went on to say that we can go against this: we can use what we wear to make a political statement because it is so much more visible that, say, what we eat for example.  

It would be interesting for my project to explore perceptions created when people own various different technological items such as new Apple products, out of date electronics or even the lesser known sustainable options such as the Fairphone.

Paralysing Vastness

Although the True Cost documentary was very interesting, the sheer scale of the damage being done through the system of fashion was terrifying and quite upsetting. This reminded me of a quote in Jonathan Chapman’s book Emotionally Durable Design:

If anything, environmental statistics of this nature actually hinder progress as they underline the paralysing enormity of the ecological crisis, intimidating us as individuals; denial kicks in, and the reachable becomes unreachable. – Jonathan Chapman

This links to an issue that I’ve had with a lot of sustainability campaigns out there at the moment. How can we promote positive change when we are constantly shocked with such huge figures as if one individual could never make any sort of difference?

Start with clothing, for all the problems that feel too big and out of our control. – True Cost documentary

However, the documentary ended with this quote which I found strangely optimistic. The use of the word ‘clothing’ limits the problem simply down to the purchases of the consumer, because at the bottom of it all this is what drives everything. It reminds consumers that they’re in charge. The products that we buy into are the systems that we support.

The quote almost says that we can tackle this problem one small issue at a time and, eventually, these small steps will lead on to an awesome change.

All in all, it was an absolutely fascinating afternoon for me and I definitely feel like I’ve learnt a lot. Thanks to all the panelists and organisers and I can’t wait until next time!

Images sourced from fashionrevolution.org

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